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космическая фантастика
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приключения (детская лит.)
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2 "All You Zombies"

Testimony of Louise Baltimore

Tell everything, he said.

Fine, but where do I start? The order of events is, at best, a convenient fiction. Seen from another vantage point, things happened very differently. I can hear the universe laughing at me as I try to envision a beginning. However, even us highly evolved mutant-type critters from the seventeenth dimension are, when you get down to it, time-binding apes who live in the eternal Now. No matter how many knots I tie in my lifeline I still move down it the old-

fashioned way, in only one direction, taking it one subjective second at a time.

Seen from that perspective, the story begins like this:

I was jerked awake by the silent alarm vibrating my skull It won't shut off until you sit up, so I did.

Mornings had been getting both better and worse than they used to be. Better because I didn't have that many of them left and valued each new one more. Worse because it was harder to get out of bed.

It would have been easier if I'd allowed myself to sleep plugged in. But you start doing that and before you know it you're plugged into more things than you want, so I didn't.

Instead I kept the revitalizer console on the other side of the room and forced myself to make that long walk every morning.

Ten meters.

This time I made the last two meters on my hands and knees. I sat on the floor and plugged the circulator tube into my navel.

That almost makes the walk worth it. I'd been feeling like rd shrunk inside my skinsuit.

Then the go-juice reached my heart and I practically exploded. I could feel the tingling spread down my limbs. The sludge I use for blood was being replaced with something that's half fluorocarbons and half mountain dew. I guarantee it'll get the sleepy dust out of your eyes.

I said, "Listen up, motherfucker."

And the Big Computer answered, "What the hell do you want?"

No toadying servomannerisms for me. When I accessed, I wanted to feel like I was talking to something at least as nasty as I was. Everybody I know likes to have the BC simper at them like a receptionist or baritone its words like a wide-screen Jehovah. Not me. The BC obliges by seeming to barely tolerate me.

"Why'd you get me out of bed? You owe me three hours' sleep."

"A problem has come up in connection with an operation in progress. Since you are Chief of Snatch Team Operations, someone at the Gate had the foolish notion you could be of help straightening it out. No doubt he was wrong, judging -- "

"Shut up. How bad?"


"How soon ... how much time do I have?"

"In the philosophical or the practical sense? You have no time, you should have been there half an hour ago."

If it had said fifteen minutes ago I think I might have made it.

I pulled on a pair of ersatz twentieth-century jeans. I stopped in the bathroom long enough to buzz my teeth clean and choose some hair (blonde, this time) and see if my face was on straight. Say five seconds for the teeth and hair, and six seconds at the mirror. That was an extravagant waste of time, but I like mirrors. They lie so fetchingly these days. You beautiful fraud, you. I grinned at myself. It would most likely be the last chance I had to grin all day.

Then I was out the door, bowling over Sherman the houseboy on the way out. He spilled his breakfast tray.

I ran barefoot down the hall, fell down the drop tube, hurried to the sidewalk and ran on that, too, pushing the more sedate drones out of my way. I reached the speedcaps and got into one. I punched in the code for the Gate, sank into the padding and took a deep breath, then me and the capsule arched out over the city like a high pop fly to centerfield.

Faster than that I cannot hurry. I relaxed and watched the buildings slide by beneath me, not really giving it my attention. It wasn't until then that I remembered this was the day. One of my messages was coming due at the Post Office.

I looked at my Lady Bulova and frowned. There were still several hours before I could open the time capsule. Which meant it was not likely to have a bearing on this crisis, whatever it was. W e seldom see a crisis at the Gate that isn't resolved within two or three hours.

Which meant I could expect another crisis before the day was out.

Sometimes I wonder why I get up.

My capsule was fielded by the retarder rings. When I decapsulated I hurried into the Gate complex and down the corridor to Operations. The gnomes sat there in the blue and green light from their consoles, which filled up a huge horseshoe gallery overlooking the activity on the floor beneath them. Operations was glassed in, insulating it from the sounds of the things happening below.

God, how I hate the gnomes. Every time I went to Operations I could smell their putrefaction. It was nonsense, of course; I was smelling my own fear. In another year or so I'd be behind a console. I'd be built in to a console, with all my guts on the outside and nothing left of my body but the Big Lie. I'm twenty percent fake, myself. They're more like eighty percent.

To hell with them..

I got a few withering looks. They don't care much for wakes, either.

There was something new behind the Operations Controller's console. It was Lawrence Calcutta-Benares. Yesterday he'd been in the deputy's chair, and five years before he'd been my team leader. There was no point in asking what had become of Marybeth Metz. Time flies.

I said. "What's up?"

"We had an indication of a twonky developing," he said, with deplorable grammar. A twonky used to mean some anachronistic object left behind in a snatch, but lately people had begun using the word to refer to the paradox situation that object tended to generate.

"Sorry to wake you," he said. "Still, we thought you should be notified." It's a shame how a good team leader can degenerate into a slackbrain. I should have had the whole situation by then, and there he sat, trying to draw me into a fuggin' conversation.

"Shortly after the twonky alarm, one of your girls lost her stunner on the plane."

"Lawrence, are you going to dribble this story out over the next three days, or are you going to tell it to me and let me do something about it?" Stop doddering, you ancient bag of shit.

I didn't have to say that last part aloud. He got it. I could see his so-called face icing over.

The poor bastard just wanted to talk. He thought he was still my friend. Well, boo-hoo. This was his first day dealing directly with walkies, and it was about time he learned how we felt about each other. I didn't take this job to win the Miss Congeniality award.

He became all business, which is just what I had intended.

"The snatch is to 1955 Arizona. A Lockheed Constellation. It still has about twenty minutes, 55time, and then it's going to lose most of its right wing. All the team is still aboard.

They're looking for the gun and trying to finish the snatch at the same time. Indications from the scanners are still inconclusive. We can't tell if you'll find it. It might be possible."

I thought briefly of the period jokes inherent in losing one's right wing over Arizona, then shoved it out of my mind.

"Give me the bridge, then," I said. "I'm going back."

He didn't argue, though he might have. It's a breach of temporal security to send somebody back who's not replacing somebody else. I suspect he wouldn't have minded if I rode it down and bought myself a piece of Arizona real estate. For whatever reason, he gave the order. One of his scurvy underlings played with his buttons and the bridge moved out over the sorting floor. I slammed through the door and out onto it, ten meters above the shouts and screams and curses of the passengers who'd already come through from 1955.

They would be the first-class people. There is a special indignant quality to their shouts. They had paid the extra fee, and now this. I shall write my congressman, Cecily, really I shall.

I paused at the end of the bridge where it touched the narrow strip of floor that ended in the uptime side of the Gate. I always do. I've gone through the damn thing a thousand times, but it's not something one ever does lightly. Down below me, somebody was demanding to speak to the stewardess. No kidding. He really was.

The poor fellow thought he had problems.

In the twentieth century people used to jump out of airplanes with silk canopies folded into packs on their backs. The canopies were called parachutes, and what they did was -- theoretically -- open up and retard one's fall to the ground. They did this for fun. It was called skydiving, aptly enough.

Trying to understand how somebody who could expect to live seventy years would take that sort of chance -- with a body the contemporary medicine men could heal only imperfectly or not at all -- how, in spite of that, they could take that first step out the door of the plane, helped me some in dealing with the trip through the Gate. Not that I ever understood why those people jumped: 20ths don't have the brains of a sow, that's well known.

But even they don't actually enjoy it. What they did was sublimate the universal fear of falling into another part of the brain: the part that laughs. Laughter is an interrupted defense mechanism. They'd interrupt their fear of falling so well they could pretend to themselves that jumping out of an airplane was fun.

With all that, I'm convinced that even the most experienced of them had to hesitate at the door. They might have done it so many times they no longer noticed it, but it was there.

It's the same way with me. Nobody watching would have seen me break stride as I came to the end of the bridge and stepped into the Gate. But that moment of gut-clutching fear was there.

The trip through the Gate is different every time. It is instantaneous, and it's plenty of time to go insane. It is a zone of simultaneity where I become, for a time too short to measure or remember and too long to endure, all the things that have ever been. I encounter myself in the Gate. I create myself, then create the universe and emerge into my creation. I fall downtime to the beginning of the universe and then bounce back to a time else when. That time turns out to be the dead past, come alive again, re-animated for me and the snatch team.

I could devote a billion words to the experience of stepping through the Gate and not come close to the actuality.

At the same time, what happened is that I stepped through. Simple. One foot in the dead future, the other in the living past (with my ass on the line: one cheek in the land of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the other in the Last Age -- or my face in the fifties and my fanny in Tomorrowland).

These two feet of mine were connected by legs. Yet they were some thousands of miles apart in space and billions of years apart in time.

One of the feet was not even my own, but that's neither here nor there.

I shall simply say I stepped through. It should be taken to mean I went through a terrifying ordeal that I had become used to, to the point that I managed to convince myself it was routine.

I stepped through the Gate.

I emerged in the lavatory of the Lockheed Constellation in 1955, and immediately had to duck as two members of the snatch team threw a screaming woman over my head. Her scream cut off when her head went through the Gate. It would finish in the far future and by then it would probably be a dilly. The situation was simply not going to make sense to the poor dear. Greetings! Your descendants are proud to welcome you to Utopia!

I stepped out of the lav as two more snatchers dragged a bulky man in a torn gray suit toward the door. He struggled feebly; probably stunned at low power. It didn't take long to see not much was going right with this snatch. For one thing, the passengers were rebelling.

Of course, we expect hysteria, eventually. No snatch is going to come off without some screaming and the involuntary release of a few pints of urine. If I got snatched, I'd probably piss, too.

But it struck me that the mayhem stage of this snatch had arrived ahead of schedule.

There were still too many conscious goats against a handful of snatchers.

It was easy to distinguish the snatch team members from the goats. The snatchers were all dressed like stewardesses. In 1955, on this airline, that meant pert little caps and skirts reaching halfway between knees and ankles and precarious, high-heeled shoes.

They also wore blood-red lipstick. They looked like vampires.

1955. I had to take their word for it. When you've been to as many times as I have the styles blur. They all look weird: But I had no reason to doubt the date. Outside, down below us in the world, cars were sprouting tail fins. Chuck Berry was recording Maybellene. Phil Silvers and Ed Sullivan were on the vidscreens, which were being called television sets.

Nashua would win the Preakness this year and the Brooklyn Dodgers would win the World Series. I could have been a rich woman in 1955 if I could have found a way to get a bet down. Tomorrow's newspapers, for instance: Constellation Crashes In Arizona Desert ...

Wanna bet? But this little section of 1955 was not a healthy place to be. Even without the chaos the snatch operation had become, this airplane did not have much flying time left.

I shook my head to clear it. Sometimes that works. I get vague for a few seconds after a trip through the Gate. I forced myself to concentrate on what needed doing this second, and the next, and the next ...

Jane Birmingham was hurrying down the aisle. I snagged her arm. Things were falling apart around her and I guess the last thing she needed was to have the boss show up to joggle her elbow.

"It's a mess back there," she said, gesturing to the curtain separating first-class from tourist. I heard shouts and screams of a struggle.

"We were shorthanded when we went in on them," Jane was still explaining. "Pinky discovered her gun was missing not too long after we took off. We tried to locate it quietly; didn't work. I had to start the snatch. I let Pinky look while we started caulking the folks up front." She looked away from me, then dragged her eyes back. "I know I shouldn't have done that, but -- "

I waved it away.

"We'll sort it out later," I said.

"I don't know what went wrong from there. Shorthanded, I guess. Plus, we were all on edge. When we faced them down a fight got going. Kate's down and out. Some big bastard got past -- "

"Never mind. Toss her out with the goats."

There was no way to tell for sure what started the brawl I'd been on snatches where the goats got out of hand. It's a surreal experience, pointing a weapon at a twentieth-century native and telling him what you're going to make him do. Some 20ths have no more sense of survival than a stalk of broccoli. They'll walk right into a gun. They don't believe death can happen to them, especially the young ones.

Then there are their odd political ideas. They are often obsessed with the explanation they 'deserve,' the things they have a 'right' to, the decent treatment we 'owe' them.

Very weird stuff. Me, I'll do anything somebody with a gun tells me to do, and say please and thank you. And kill him instantly if he gives me a chance.

"How many are still awake back there?" I asked.

"When I left, maybe twenty."

"Get 'em to work, quick. Where's Pinky?"

"Tearing up the seats in tourist."

I followed her back. Things had quieted a little. There were maybe a dozen passengers still awake, forty or fifty snoozing in uncomfortable positions. Lilly Rangoon and another woman whose name I couldn't recall were facing the conscious ones. who huddled in the back of the plane. I could smell their fear. The two snatchers were facing them, one on each side of the aisle, stunners held in two hands and steadied on seat backs.

"Okay, folks," Lilly bawled in a voice like a drill sergeant. "I want you to shut the fuck up. Calm down and listen! You, shithead, pipe down before I cram my foot up your ass sideways. Is that your wife, mister? You got two seconds to shut her fucking mouth before I blow you both away. One ... that's better.

"Now. These people are not injured. They're alive. Look at 'em and you'll see they're breathing. They can even hear us. But I can kill with this weapon, and I promise you I'll snuff the first son of a bitch that gets out of line.

"You are in great danger."

"You will all die if you do not do exactly as I say.

"Each of you grab the nearest unconscious person and drag him toward the front of the plane. When you get there, the stewardess will tell you what to do. You have no time to waste. If you move too slowly, I'll show you what else I can do with this weapon."

She got them moving, with a few more shouts and obscenities. That's one of the main things we study when we bone up on a culture: what words will shock the hell out of 'em In the twentieth century, it was mostly intercourse and excrement.

The other ability of the stunner that Lilly hinted at is to function rather like a cattle prod, but at a distance. It hurts but does not incapacitate. It works best when aimed at the soft, sensitive flesh between the legs -- even better when delivered from behind. Lilly prodded a couple of them and they got the idea real fast, for 20ths.

I heard all this going on in the background. What I was doing was ripping up the seats in the front rows of the tourist section. Pinky was across the aisle from me, doing the same thing. I don't think she was aware she was crying. She worked steadily, monomaniacally.

She was rational. She was doing her job.

She was also scared spitless.

"You're sure it's on the plane?" I called across the aisle.

"I'm sure. I saw it in my purse after I got on."

She had to think that, since there was nothing to be done if it was on the ground in whatever city this flight had come from. But she was probably right. My people seldom fall apart during an operation, not even if things have become hopeless. If she said she saw it after she got on the plane, then she saw it. Which meant we could find it.

While we looked, the conscious goats were busy dragging the sleeping goats to the front of the plane. When they got there somebody was directing them to toss their loads through the Gate and go back for more. It quickly became a routine. They huffed and they puffed, but there's hardly anything stronger than a 20th. They abuse their bodies, drink, smoke too much, don't exercise, let the flab build up, and they think they're worn out after they've licked a postage stamp. But they've got muscles like horses -- and the brains to match. It's amazing the physical feats they can do if we push them hard enough.

There was one guy pulling his share of the load, and I swear he must have been fifty years old.

Jesus! Fifty!

The plane was soon emptied. As each walker carried his last body to the Gate he was shoved through himself. Then there was only the snatch team. Even the pilots had been caulked this time. W e really hate to do that, and we usually can't. One of my people was flying now. If she didn't do exactly what the pilot would have done the plane would come down miles from where it ought to. However, this one was on autopilot and would remain so until the explosion in the engine. There was not going to be anything the pilot could have done (if you can thrash your way through that thicket of verb tenses) to alter anything once that wing fell off.

Which was fortunate. There is one more trick I can use on a flight where the cockpit crew becomes aware of the snatch before it's finished, but I really hate to use it.

We could bring in a man from my Very Special Team. (I'm speaking 20th Amerenglish; 'man' includes 'woman,' or so it says in my Strunk and White.) This would be a man with a bomb in his head to insure no teeth survived for identification. A man who was willing to fly an airplane into the ground.

Did I hear someone say flight recorder? Ah, yes. Those people up front do chatter when they get into trouble. There is an interesting solution to that problem. Uptime, it was already being prepared, had been set in motion as soon as the cockpit crew came through and we knew it might have to be used. It was an elegant solution. More than a little puzzling, but elegant.

With our time scanners we can look anywhere, anytime. (Well, almost.) That's how we knew this plane would go down. We scanned newspaper stories and found accounts of the crash. It might have been nice to look inside the plane and see how the operation was going to go off, but unfortunately we can't look into any place or time where we've been, or will be.

(Time travel is tough on verb tenses.) So we couldn't know we'd have to take the pilot. But we could now scan ahead to the investigation afterward. (See what I mean about verb tenses? This was happening now -- if that word retains any meaning- uptime, in the future. They were scanning events a couple days in the '55 future: my future, at the moment.) At that investigation the tape from the cockpit recorder would be played. So we'd make a recording of that recording, put it on a self-destructing tape player, like the ones on Mission: Impossible, and leave that in the cockpit where it would play into the original recorder.


Because of what we were doing now or had already done, those words would never be spoken by the man whose voice everyone would hear. They would have been/will be/had been merely recorded from the recording itself, which had never been made, because of what we were doing or had already done.

Look at this sequence hard enough and you realize that cause and effect become a joke.

Any rational theory of the universe must be shitcanned.

Well, I shitcanned all my rational theories along time ago. You may hold on to whatever makes you happy.

I was getting nowhere with my search for the missing stunner. I looked up, saw we were the only ones left, and yelled.

"Hey! All you zombies!" When I had their attention I went on. "Everybody keep looking.

Tear this plane apart. Don't rest until the wimps start arriving, and don't even rest then. I'm going uptime to see what I can do from there."

I hurried to the front of the plane and ... stepped through.

And landed on my ass at the bottom of the sorting floor.

I saw instantly what had happened and started yelling bloody murder. That did me no good. Every goat through the Gate comes through yelling bloody murder.

At the uptime end of the Gate is a complex series of cushioned, frictionless ramps.

They're designed to catch people who are unconscious or out of their minds with fear and shuffle them off very quickly before the next goat comes through. Sometimes this process breaks bones, but seldom important ones: Time is of the essence. We can't be too fussy.

But the system is designed to sort snatch team personnel from the goats: goats to the prep room and then the holding pen and then the deep freeze, snatchers to a well-deserved rest. We all carry a radio squealer on snatch runs. The sorter listens for that squeal. I knew where my squealer was: back in the ready-room So I got a chance to see how the other half lives. I could have done without it.

There was no way to get a grip on anything (that's why they call it frictionless). I slid through a series of chutes and onto a flat surface coated with a sheet of plastic that clung to my skin. It all happened so fast I never aid understand the sequence. At some point mechanical hands removed my pants and I found myself wrapped in a tight cocoon of clear plastic. I was straitjacketed, arms at my sides, feet together.

I was tumbled in a blue light. It was frightening, even to me, and I knew what was happening. My body was being studied in minute detail, from the bones outward. The process took about two seconds. I was catalogued out to eighty decimal places and the Big Computer began thumbing through its card file of wimps, looking for the best match. That took about a picosecond. Miles away, a morgue drawer would be springing open in the wimp vaults. My slumbering double would then come rushing toward the prep room, pulling twenty gees of acceleration at the beginning and end of her trip. Twenty gees is a lot -- enough to cause brain damage if sustained for any time, but that would be carrying coals to Newcastle. Compared to a wimp, a carrot is a mental giant.

I knew the process was fast, but I'd never seen it. I was dumped on a slab no more than fifteen seconds after coming through the Gate. The wimp arrived five seconds later and was slapped onto the slab next to me. I was still being probed and prodded by mechanical examiners. When the human customising team arrived everything would be in readiness.

The plastic wrapping was permeable. I could breath through it, but there was no hope of talking. So I lay there, simmering. I could turn my head just enough to see the wimp. The likeness was very good: my vegetable twin sister. Of course, her left leg was real and mine wasn't. I wondered how the BC would cope with that.

I found out.

A mechanical leg came down from an overhead conveyor and was deposited beside the sleeping wimp. Surely that would indicate something to the human operating team, which I was beginning to think would never arrive.

But they did, and they gave me unwanted insight into why goats are so jumpy after going through customization.

There were five in the team. I knew one of them to speak to, though not well. He looked right through me.

They prodded me and turned me. They referred to the computer screen, consulted hastily, and apparently decided to pass the problem of the artificial leg on to others. All they were supposed to do was make the wimp look enough like me to fool FBI investigators in 1955. I was just a piece of meat wrapped up like a frozen steak in a supermarket.

The team worked damn well together. Nobody got in anyone else's way, everything needed was always at hand. Literally. They would reach without looking, and it would be there.

They were fast. They sliced that wimp's leg off and kicked it aside the instant it hit the floor. Meanwhile someone was extracting all the wimp's teeth and plugging in new ones that would look just like mine. They hooked up the artificial leg, slashed the wimp here and there in the places where my skinsuit shows scars. They peeled the skin away from her face and began building it from beneath, then closed it again and applied the forced regenerators. It healed without a scar.

But there were scars they wanted the wimp to have. The only way to make those is with a timepress field. When everybody was ready they plugged feedlines from big nutrient tanks into the wimp, connected her ureter and anus to evacuator lines, and jumped back.

The blue glow of the Gate surrounded the wimp. It began to breathe so fast the chest was a blur. Its hair and fingernails grew visibly. It used nutrient fluid so fast that it had to be pumped in, and it emitted urine in a pulsed, pressurized stream that hissed into a tank on the floor. In ten seconds it grew six months older. The scars healed normally.

They then pulled my jeans onto the wimp, inserted a funnel into its mouth and were about to pump it full of half-digested airline food when one of the workers looked at my face.

I mean she really looked at it. She had looked right at me several times before but nothing had registered.

Her eyes grew wide.

When she managed to make them realize who it was they were duplicating, the whole team helped me peel out of the plastic skin.

Things got a little hazy for a time.

I remember looking down at the sleeping face that looked just like mine. Then they were pulling me away from it. There -was a stout aluminium bar in my hands and a rip in the palm of my skinsuit from thumb to index finger. I had wrenched the bar loose from one of the examining machines.

And I had sure made a mess of that wimp.

I regret that. I really do. The thing had been wearing my jeans. and I never did get all the blood out of them.

The head of the wimp-building team trailed me all the way to the door.

He kept trying to apologize and I kept ignoring him If there was blame, it was mostly mine, but I didn't want to say that. Like plugging into life-support equipment, I view apologizing as a dangerous vice that can take over your whole life if you give in to it. Inside, I was whipping myself severely for pulling a tyro stunt like leaving my squealer in the ready-

room. Outside, I trust, I was at work and the man's apologies simply got in my way.

I had wasted five whole minutes in there. I would never know if those minutes were the margin between life and death for Pinky.

I wasted fifteen more seconds just getting through the door.

There were no procedures for it. The whole goat-sorting operation was designed to prevent anybody getting through easily. But with a few quiet, totally sincere death threats, I managed it. I raced up to Operations, told Lawrence to put every available operative on the search for Pinky's stunner in the city from which the flight had originated -- which I learned was Houston -- got him to extend the bridge again, and ... stepped ... through the Gate.

It was a shambles.

They had looked just about every place it was possible to look, and they had not been gentle. The aisle was knee-deep in torn seat cushions. The carpet was ripped up. The contents of the galley were strewn from nose to tail of the plane. Tiny bottles of booze clinked underfoot.

To make everything worse, the customized wimps began arriving.

So much. time had already been wasted that we had to hurry getting them placed. We seated a few and strapped them in, but most we just threw. We had our portapaks on full power, and we were strong. Instead of just enriched blood, adrenalin, and vitamins -- the wake-up mixture -- we were now getting an insane brew of hyperdrenalin, methedrine, Essence of Hysteria, TNT, and Kickapoo Joyjuice. We picked up those half-corpses and tossed them around like beanbags. I could have tom sheet metal with my eyebrows.

Three-quarters of the wimps had been through the process I had recently seen firsthand.

They looked exactly like the people they were replacing. To save time, the other quarter came premutilated. Most were hideously burned. Some were still smoking.

One is supposed to say the smell of charred human flesh is revolting. It's not actually. It smells pretty good.

Most of the wimps were still breathing. They'd existed an average of thirty years in the wimp tanks, kept alive by machines, exercised mechanically to keep the muscle tone.

Theoretically they didn't have the brains to breathe, but the fact is they were too dumb to stop. Most would still be breathing when they hit the ground.

It didn't take long to get them all through. When we were done we still had three minutes and forty seconds. I sent one of the team back to the future to see if anyone had located the stunner in Houston. The rest of us kept looking for it on the plane. The messenger returned with the expected bad news, and now we had two minutes and twenty seconds.

Pinky had calmed down, if you could call it that. She was no longer crying. I believe she was paralyzed with terror. I found Lilly Rangoon, the squad leader, and pulled her aside.

"I don't know Pinky well," I said. "What does she have in the way of twonkies?"

"Nothing. She's clean." Lilly looked away from me.

That's a rarity. We were talking about such things as artificial legs, kidneys, eyes -- medical implants of any kind that were too advanced for 1955. Pinky was a healthy girl. She would be a great loss to the teams, if for no other reason than that.

At the same time, her lack of medical anachronisms made Lilly's job a little easier. It would have fallen to Lilly to cut those items out and bring them back with us.

"Thirty seconds," someone called out.

"There's a minute leeway," I said. "We'll have to go on the dick. You stay long enough to get her skinsuit and -- "

"Shut your freaking mouth! I know my job. Now get out of my aircraft."

Nobody talks to me like that. Nobody. I looked into her eyes. If looks could freeze I'd have been a one-legged pop side.

"Right," I said. "See you in fifty thousand years."

I hurried to the front, where everyone was hanging back, away from the Gate. Nobody wanted to go. Neither did I. It would have been a lot easier to ride it in.

I looked back and saw Pinky hand something floppy to Lilly. I knew it was Pinky, though it didn't look like her, because there was no one else it could be. The floppy thing was her skinsuit. She was no longer a sexy stewardess; without her disguise she was a terrified, naked little girl.

Lilly gave her a salute which Pinky did not have the will to return, and sprinted toward me.

"Start walking through, or I start kicking ass," I said.

They did. I turned to Lilly.

"How old was she?" I asked.

"Pinky? She was twelve."

I didn't make the rule. I'm not trying to absolve myself by saying that. I think it's a good rule. If we didn't have it, I'd write it myself.

No hardware gets left behind. The penalty for carelessness is death. You bring it back, or you stay with it.

We couldn't always work it the way we did with Pinky. That was the best way. It could be done because this flight would hit so hard and burn so fiercely that no one would expect to recover more than fifty percent of the body in any form at all. If they got ten identifiable corpses it would be miraculous, so one girl who shouldn't be there would never be noticed.

Even so, Lilly's last act before leaving the plane was to grab a wimp of about Pinky's body mass and toss it back into the future. The balance is critical.

The worst way? If we'd had to bring Pinky back with us for temporal reasons, Lilly would have stood her up against the wall and shot her. And then, possibly, have shot herself. I had a team leader do that once. "

Nobody ever said it was easy duty.

I came through the right way this time. I still didn't have my squealer, but Operations knew that now, and knew nobody but snatchers would come through the Gate until they closed it for good. Which they were preparing to do.

We all fetched up at the padded Team Recovery Area. Medics were waiting all around us, like crash trucks at an airport. We all made hand signals that we were okay except one girl who wanted a stretcher.

It's traditional just to lie there for five or ten minutes. Our portapaks had automatically returned to normal operation when we passed through the Gate, so our hysterical strength was fading fast. Behind it was the exhaustion the drugs had masked, both physical and mental.

But I had to get up.

"Reward time," I said, as I grabbed Lilly's weapon and headed for the door to Operations.

"One hour at full power. Set 'em up, girls."

"See you in intensive care, Louise," one of them called out, twisting the dial on the portapak strapped to her wrist.

"Tell my dear mom I died grinning, " yelled another.

I ran into Operations and confronted Lawrence. He was going through his checklist preparatory to shutting power to the Gate.

"One of my people is still on that plane," I told him. "I want you to keep the Gate focused on it until it actually touches the desert."

"Out of the question, Louise."

"One of my people is still on that plane, Larry. If she manages to find her weapon she can still come back."

"Do you realize the problems we have keeping the Gate tuned in on a plane that's flying straight and level? Do you have any inkling of how that problem squares and cubes in complexity when it starts to twist and turn on the way down? It can't be done."

There are three settings on a stunner. The first puts you to sleep. The second delivers pain. I let him see me set Lilly's gun on the third notch. I put the muzzle to his temple.

"One of my people is still on that plane, Larry. I have now said that three times."

He managed to bring the Gate to the falling plane twice, once for two seconds, then again for almost five. Pinky didn't come through.

What the hell. I had to try.

I sat on the floor beside Larry's console and watched him supervise the powerdown operation. I asked him if he had any smokes, and he tossed me a packet of Lucky Strike Green. I lit three of them.

When he was through, I reversed the stunner and handed it to him.

"For me?" he said. He took it, hefted it in his hand.

"Do whatever you want with it," I said.

He aimed it at my forehead. I took another drag, and waited. He used the barrel to brush hair away from my eyes, then tossed the weapon to me.

"You don't really care right now," he said.

"No. I really don't."

"That would take all the fun out of it." He folded his arms and leaned back. Well, not really. He didn't exactly have a chair; he was more or less built into it.

His eyes lit up.

"I'll wait till things are going great for you. The next time -I see you smile, you've had it."

Tricky bastard. I did smile, but he didn't ask for the gun.

"Larry, I'm sorry."

He looked at me. We'd been lovers for a while, before he fell apart too much to get around under his own power. He knew my feelings on apologies.

"Okay. My fault, too. Tempers run a bit high during a snatch."

"Don't they, though."


"Until the next time," I said.


I looked at him and felt a deep regret for what had once been. No, let's get brutally honest here. For what I would one day become. One day real soon now.

Larry had elected to acknowledge his gnomehood all the way. Most of the gnomes at the other consoles looked like anyone else except they had thick bunches of cables running from their backs. Those cables ran into their chairs and down into hundreds of bulky machines in the basement.

Larry hadn't seen any use in living on a leash. If he couldn't leave the building, what was the point of phoney legs? So Larry's chair was part of Larry. It had no back. He sort of grew from it, planted there on the floor in front of his console. He looked like a bizarre chess piece.

From the waist up he looked like a normal human being. I knew most of that was a lie, too. Even when I'd known him he had only one real arm. His face had been hit-and-miss the one time I'd seen it without the skinsuit: nose gone, lips eaten away, only one ear. I didn't know which diseases he had. One doesn't ask I didn't know which parts of him were actually organic; probably not much more than the brain. One doesn't ask that, either.

Nobody but me and my doctor and Sherman know which of my organs and limbs are my own, and I'm happy to keep it that way. I must care, or I wouldn't live in this lying skinsuit pre, tending to be a film star from the year 2034. That's right: the me everybody knows is patterned, down to the last birthmark, on a glamor queen we snatched from a terrorist explosion.

It struck me, sitting there with him in a rare moment of quiet, that when I could no longer carry all my prostheses I would do well to emulate Larry. Then the time for attractive lies would be over. Then it would be time to face, finally, what I am, what all of us here in the glorious future really are.

The Last Age.

I got up and wandered from the Operations room. I found some clothes and got dressed, had breakfast from machines in the Snatch Team Ready-Room, and just sat for a while. I realized the day was still young.

So far it had been pretty typical.

1 "A Sound of Thunder" | Millennium | 3 "Lets Go to Golgotha"